“Let’s have a conversation,” said then County Board candidate Vivek Patil. It was more than a campaign slogan. He’s made it a central part of his life and work. Through an effort they’ve called Building Bridges, Vivek and others have set out to listen — really listen — to their neighbors and people outside their “bubbles” in hopes of building a stronger community and Commonwealth.
“Curiosity makes us better people,” says he. “It drives us to learn, to evolve our positions, to understand the world and … really get a sense of empathy for another human’s experience.”
Vivek isn’t the first person to join me to talk about the essential role of curiosity in empathy and importance of listening to one another. In this week’s “Curiosity to Go” segment, I revisited conversations with Stacy Snyder of Together Virginia PAC and fellow WERA producer Brandon Charles of Breaking Boundaries.
This listening stuff? It’s important.
At a time when many of us are struggling to listen to The Other, my conversations with Vivek, Stacy, Brandon and others are like balm on a fevered brow. They remind me that good folks are having great conversations, that people are making headway despite the heat and rhetoric. That in choosing to be curious in conversation, we open doors and pathways that might otherwise be obstructed by our own assumptions, by our own unwillingness to see a possible path forward.
Does it take the kind of training that Vivek and his compatriots at Building Bridges have imposed on themselves? Does it take a PAC, or a radio program? Perhaps not, but it certainly takes intention.
What I admire about Vivek, Stacy and Brandon is that level of intentionality. The focus is different for each of them — community, politics and disability, respectively — but the strategy is the same: they make a very explicit commitment to seek out others with life experiences different from their own and, in so doing, make an equally explicit statement about their belief in the value and opportunity to be found there. They are willing to go toward the unfamiliar, toward the unknown.
They are willing to admit they have more to learn.
Admitting ignorance is hard. Especially for those of us who like to think of ourselves as smart. We pride ourselves on being current in world affairs, on being well-read, well-educated, well-informed. If we’ve reached a certain level in our careers, we’re also likely to think we’ve earned deference to our expertise. So to admit not knowing is just a tad radical, almost an abdication of our credentials.
I consider myself a recovering know it all.
I consider myself a recovering know it all. Not, I hope, because I’m smug and so much better-read than the next guy, but because I used to be substantially more invested in my own expertise. For many years I held a job that essentially required me to, well, know it all. As the institutional memory and governance arbiter of a national organization, I was arguably responsible for having a full command of all the facts, figures, fictions and fables. But dangers lurked in the dark corners of those fortifications, for me and for my colleagues. I was occasionally regarded as omniscient. I was perhaps reluctant to disabuse anyone of that notion, disinclined to admit ignorance.
No one can know all there is to know, and to pretend otherwise is both silly and sad. I consider myself in recovery from that unhappy fate because I’ve worked hard to embrace my own ignorance and to find the strength that comes from so doing. In walking my own talk, I’ve discovered the power that Vivek or Stacy or Brandon could have told me lay waiting, if only I were to listen more.
Choosing to be curious in conversation, then, is committing to attend to another. Good conversation is more than just strings of great questions, although a few well-chosen queries will certainly move a discussion along and open unexpected channels. Real conversations is also about shutting one’s mouth, opening one’s ears and mind and heart, pushing all the assumptions and arguments and urges to reply aside — and just listening.
In her lovely book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett writes: “Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability – a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.”
How might we summon our own best selves and listen even more generously?